Terminal Illness: Part Two

Continued from Part One

 

In terms of experience level, I would classify myself as a class 3 traveler (5 being the highest). I’ve been to three continents (Asia, Europe, Australia), have flown on flights lasting 22 hours, have traveled extensively around the Philippines, and when I have the means, I try to visit at least one new country every year. Despite having been granted a ten-year US visa thrice, but I have never taken advantage of it, and have never traveled above Economy class.

So I wouldn’t consider myself inexperienced when it comes to air travel. As a class 3 traveler I have had my share of mishaps. Compounded with my penchant for disregarding rules and regulations, I have had quite a few ‘incidents’ in airports.

But in this particular case, it could have just been sheer bad luck.

As I mentioned in Part One, I was bound for a flight to La Palma from Barcelona at 0900. After some setbacks, I had made it to the airport at around 0800, and was headed for the security check.

Like any experienced air traveler, I had checked in online prior to my flight, but–and here’s where the inner misfit in me reared its all too familiar head–didn’t print a boarding pass. Besides the fact that I didn’t have a printer, I figured, Hey, this is Barcelona, a developed country, not the Philippines, and nobody brings a printed boarding pass in the age of online check-ins and QR codes. For good measure, I sent the boarding pass to my cellphone and had the confirmation email of my online booking on my tablet.

While queuing up for the security check, there was a scanner for the boarding pass. I showed the airport personnel the ‘boarding pass’ link I’d received by SMS, but then I realised I needed the bar code for the machine. Now here’s my phone:

Cursing under my breath, I spent around 10 minutes trying to pull up the boarding pass on my iPad using the 30-minute free airport wifi. For some reason the site and link wouldn’t work so I gave up and went to the Vueling check-in counter (another five or so minutes in the queue) where I was told by the desk agent that I needed to try the last-minute check-in desk (had I known such a desk existed I would have gone there immediately) at the end of the bank of counters.

Now I was starting to panic. My heart racing, I dashed to the last-minute desk. There a lady was calling the name of some tardy passenger, indicating that I had to wait. When she could attend to me, I told her my flight details. “You are too late,” she declared matter-of-factly. I could only imagine the expression on my face. “The gates close in three minutes,” she stated flatly, and despite my begging and assuring her of my running speed, she said it was impossible for me to make it. Perhaps if I had come ten minutes ago (while I was copying the boarding pass link from my phone to the browser on my iPad), it would still have been possible, but since this was not the case she suggested I check the Vueling ticketing office for a flight change.

With a terrible knot in my stomach, I sprinted to the Vueling ticketing desk (which of course had to be all the way at the end of the hall) where I pleaded with them to help me. The first person I spoke to simply looked at his computer and said the worst words I have ever heard.

Besides ‘You’re going to live. Kinda,’ ‘I’m sorry, but your application has been denied,’ and ‘It’s not working,’ this is the worst sentence one could ever hear:

‘Your plane has already left.’

That’s when the sheer hopelessness of my situation struck me.

Until that point in my life, I had never heard such a sound escape from my lips. The groan of despair was punctuated by the thud of my forehead as I leaned it against the cold glass of the window of the ticketing office. I felt utterly horrible. I had been looking forward to this trip for the past weeks, the ticket had already been paid for of course, and my aunt Susan, whom I hadn’t seen in over twenty-five years, was expecting me.

Disheartened, I tried to call her to tell her the bad news. The call wouldn’t go through so I sent her a message asking her to call me, and that it was an emergency.

I went back to the Vueling ticketing office, deciding to ask another ticketing agent who might possibly be more resourceful. I spoke to a Jordi who said that there were no more flights for the rest of the week to La Palma, but that there was the option of taking a flight to Tenerife instead, then taking a connecting flight or a ferry to La Palma. The change would cost an additional €129, and I had to make the booking by 1005 and he couldn’t tell me how much the connection or ferry would cost.

That was it. Game over. No way was I going to spend that amount over the original flight. I crumpled to the floor in the corner of the terminal and sent out an email to Anja apologizing for fucking up so badly, and tried to breath.

That was that, I thought. I had just wasted a plane ticket–something I’ve never done before–and I was preparing myself to go back to my flat where I would proceed to lock myself up in my room for the rest of the week.

Then my phone rang. It was tita Susan. It was the first time in twenty five years that either one of us had heard each other’s voice. On the verge of breaking down, I explained what had just happened. Calmly, she said she would talk to Anja. A few minutes later, Anja called and I explained that there is an option to go to La Palma through Tenerife, and I heard her mother say that this was quite simple. But I didn’t think I’d have enough money to buy another ticket from Tenerife to La Palma, I said. She told me not to worry about this, that they would book the flight for me.

So I went back to Jordi and bought the 1200 flight to Tenerife arriving at 1420. Anja texted me that I was booked on a Canary Air flight at 1535, I just had to pick up my ticket at their desk, and that Tenerife was a small airport so there was a lot of time to make the connection.

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Exhausted but bolstered by the fact that they had not given up on me, I was on my way to Tenerife two hours later.

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The fat lady was still not singing though. When we landed two hours later, I checked the time and my heart stopped for the second time that day.

1520.

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Edvard Munch knows.

But Anja said it was a small airport, so maybe fifteen minutes was enough time to pick up my ticket, check in, and go through security. I was the first out the door of the plane and into the terminal. Unable to find the Canary Air desk, I asked the airport security with Guardia Civil emblazoned on his uniform. He indicated how to get to the desk, but I still couldn’t find it. It was ten minutes to departure, and I couldn’t believe I could be so stupid as to miss two flights in a single day.

Careening around in a panic–there were no escalators–I wound up back where I started, to the puzzlement of the Guardia Civil. Finally he understood what I was looking for. I explained that it was an emergency, that my flight was leaving in less than ten minutes. “Don’t worry, we are one hour behind Barcelona,” he said (I paraphrase). My heart started to beat normally once again. Mind you, throughout this entire ordeal–which had so far lasted several hours–I was communicating in nothing but Spanish. He led me to through security barriers and I found the Canary Air ticketing desk tucked away in a corner behind a pillar where they were sure to be difficult to find.

The lady confirmed my booking, then handed me a bill to pay for €59. Confused, I said that this was already paid for. She checked her computer and shook her head. After paying for the flight to Tenerife, I had €71 in my wallet, which thankfully covered the fare. So I approached the check-in desk with my boarding pass and €12 to my name. The airport officer then said that they have two bookings under my name. She cancelled one and told me to return to the Canary Air office to get a refund.

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Tenerife airport has paid video games and internet  (€1 gets you something like 20 minutes) and kiddie rides. It almost reminds me of my least-favorite airport, Manila’s NAIA 1.

At 1535 I was back up in the air, flying over the blue waters in a plane that was probably as old as I was. I noticed that with all my running that day, my left shoe’s sole had started to come off. These were hand-me-down hiking boots, and before leaving Barcelona, I had just had the right sole repaired. Looking around at the old plane, I thought, “Please let this be the last thing to go wrong today.”

And it was. At 1610 I walked through the arrivals gate of La Palma airport, hugged my aunt and cousin, got into the car, and drove through the most beautiful island I had ever seen.

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Touchdown.
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All’s well that ends in La Palma.

Epilogue

A few days later, I received an email with the subject, ‘Did you like your Vueling experience?’ (translated). In this case, silence was the best response.

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Did I learn anything from this ordeal? Two things: First, always print your boarding pass. Second, be thrifty in all things, except when it comes to air travel. This should likewise apply to medical care, but that’s a story for another day.

 

Terminal Illness: Part One

 

Prologue

I have always had problems with authority. When it comes to rules, like in the story of Bre’r Rabbit and the Brair Patch, if you want me to do something, tell me to what it is and I will pathologically do something else, gaining some sort of undefinable satisfaction from refuting imperatives that may be as simple as ‘No Entry’ signs to as practical as ‘Please sit down while you are on the (insert the ride or transport of your choice).’ My point of contention is not the rule itself–this is for the good of the general public–but that it should always apply, when I feel that there is room for exceptions. This knee-jerk rebellion kicks in most especially in ‘controlled’ environments, places where authority is unquestioned and absolute. Places like embassies, restricted areas in offices and hospitals, prisons, military camps (I was detained for 6 hours in 2012 while working as a courtroom sketch artist for an Al Jezeera – English documentary. I will expound further in a future post), and airports.

Airports and I have quite the history together.

2010: Stopped at the security check of NAIA 3 for packing a Swiss Army knife in my carry-on. They told that I would have to get rid of it before I could board the Cebu Pacific flight to Samar, where I was headed for a surf. Not seeing any alternative, I gave it to the airport security officer.

At the departure gate, I thought about how I really liked that Swiss knife–it was a present from my godfather–so I ran back to the security check to ask for it back, gave it to a Cebu Pacific desk agent, saying that I would be back in Manila in a few days, and would she mind keeping it for me? She said yes, we exchanged numbers, and ran the considerable distance back to the gate where boarding was already in progress. Upon returning to Manila, I contacted the Cebu Pacific desk agent, but I think she had grown attached to the Swiss knife and I never saw it or her again.

2012: On a trip to visit my sister in Brisbane, I received this lovely letter from the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service:383013_318786388131377_204919405_n On the immigration form one is asked if they are bringing in any foodstuffs. I had some granola bars on me, and I assumed the Australian Quarantine & Inspection Service meant produce, meats, fish, and so on, so I indicated ‘No.’ Apparently that was a mistake. During the security check they took me aside and sternly informed me that I had breached Australian Quarantine Law. Fortunately, I simply got a slap on the wrist instead of the fine of $AUD220 or even 10 years’ imprisonment.

2013: While traveling to Hong Kong to visit my friend Dominique, who was living and working there at the time, I was detained for around two hours. I had just landed, and at immigrations the officer took a cursory glance at my passport then beckoned me to follow him. I was led through a door, a starkly-lit hallway, then into a  holding area with other travellers, 90% of whom, as far as I could tell, were Filipinos, with some Papua New Guineans and a Taiwanese girl who was traveling as an unaccompanied minor.

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Trying to sneak a photo of a holding area in the Hong Kong airport using a handheld camera is not easy.

I figured that being a 33-year old, single Filipino male, I fit the profile of someone who might want to overstay in HK, something that Filipinos have earned a reputation for doing. In colloquial Tagalog we even have a term for this: TNT, which stands for Tago Nang Tago, translating to ‘Constantly Hiding From the Immigration Authorities.’ Maybe it was because on the immigration card I indicated ‘the Omni Hotel’ as my residence in HK, a hotel I had stayed at with my family over twenty years ago. Why I put that down can only be explained by that innate problem I have with authority.

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Hong Kong circa 1989. Since I’m not in this wonderful group photo blocking pretty much the entire HK skyline, it is reasonable to conclude that my rebellious streak was already beginning to find its voice during this time.

In broken english, they asked me questions about my profession, how much money I brought, and so on. This was not so bad, considering the other detainees were interrogated in rooms, asked to switch on their computers, and questioned more aggressively than me. When they asked me where I was staying I provided them with Dominique’s address and phone number, and they gave her a call. She had been expecting me to call her hours ago from the train station from the airport–where she would meet me–once I had arrived. She later told me she had fallen asleep waiting, and when her phone, she immediately asked “Where are you?!” upon picking up and was surprised to hear a strange voice on the other line introduce himself as someone with the Hong Kong Immigration Authority.

After two hours or so I was finally free to go. I got on the train (didn’t even buy a ticket), and was greeted by the Dom’s bemused expression as I proceeded to pay the fare at the counter to exit the train station.

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“Hm, I’m sure he’s somewhere out there…”

2015: For the holidays, I was flying to La Palma in the Canary Islands from Barcelona to visit my aunt Susan whom I hadn’t seen in over twenty-five years, and my cousin Anja.

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Baguio City, circa 1984. I’m next to Tita Susan who is on the far left, Anja is second to the right.

My flight was at 0900. I was up by 0500 and it was still dark when I walked out to catch the bus which would take me to Plaza España, where another bus would take me to the airport. Simples.

After reaching the first bus stop and waiting and walking from stop to stop for around 10 minutes, I realised that the bus wasn’t coming and that walking to Plaza España would take too long. I hailed a cab, got to the bus station in less than ten minutes, where I saw the next bus waiting. At that point I should have leapt out of the cab like in the movies, telling the driver to keep the change. That would have been the right and cool thing to do. But instead, I waited while he counted out the few cents I had coming, lost the few precious seconds, and missed the bus. But no problem, there was another bus coming. In fact, there was an express bus that went straight to the airport. It was more expensive, but after waiting for the regular bus to arrive, I decided that I’d need to to shell out the €5 to get there in half the time. But then these express buses do not make change for anything larger than €20, and I was only carrying €50’s. The driver shook his head when I asked him to give me a change, so I proceeded to ask the other passengers. No one had any change. I spent fifteen minutes running around like a fool. On the curb was a queue of taxis waiting for passengers. I went from one to the next, but at seven in the morning, no one had any change. In desperation I approached a couple of street sweepers, who looked at me like I was crazy, exclaiming (and I am paraphrasing) “Can’t you see we’re working? We could use 50 euros!” They directed me to the Metro, where I went down but there wasn’t a soul. I tried cafés in the Plaza, where the first said they didn’t have change, the second one was closed. Returned to the first cafe, asked to buy a bottle of water, figuring that they had no choice but to give me change then, but the lady insisted that she really didn’t have any at this hour. I realised that I had no chance of getting on the express bus so I decided to wait until the regular bus arrived.

Around 0745 I was headed for Terminal 1 of Barcelona airport.

But my true ordeal had yet to begin.

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